I was lucky to hear Rita Dove give a reading at my college a few years ago. She read mainly from her collection "American Smooth," and half-joked that reading her older poems made her cringe. Like any writer, she was overly critical about her earlier work. But I had developed a deep interest in mythology that year and loved poems that mixed these ancient stories with our modern world. Dove's older collection of poetry, "Mother Love" explores the relationship between mother and daughter by interposing the myth of Persephone and Demeter in modern locations and scenarios. Here is one of my favorites about the moment "Persephone" goes missing, along with an excerpt from another (longer) poem from "Demeter's" perspective after her daughter has been living in "the Underworld."
By Rita Dove
One narcissus among the ordinary beautiful
flowers, one unlike all the others! She pulled,
stooped to pull harder—
when, sprung out of the earth
on his glittering terrible
carriage, he claimed his due.
It is finished. No one heard her.
No one! She had strayed from the herd.
(Remember: go straight to school.
This is important, stop fooling around!
Don't answer to strangers. Stick
with your playmates. Keep your eyes down.)
This is how easily the pit
opens. This is how one foot sinks into the ground.
The Bistro Styx
By Rita Dove
She was thinner, with a mannered gauntness
as she paused just inside the double
glass doors to survey the room, silvery cape
billowing dramatically behind her. What's this
I thought, lifting a hand until
she nodded and started across the parquet;
that's when I saw she was dressed in all gray,
from a kittenish cashmere skirt and cowl
down to the graphite signature of her shoes.
"Sorry I'm late," she panted, though
she wasn't, sliding into the chair, her cape
tossed off in a shudder of brushed steel.
We kissed. Then I leaned back to peruse
my blighted child, this wary aristocratic mole...
...She swallowed, sliced into a pear,
speared each tear-shaped lavaliere
and popped the dripping mess into her pretty mouth.
Nowhere the bright tufted fields, weighted
vines and sun poured down out of the south.
"But are you happy?" Fearing, I whispered it
quickly. "What? You know, Mother"—
she bit into the starry rose of a fig—
"one should really try the fruit here."
I've lost her, I thought, and called for the bill.